Stuart Lawless is the National Police Chiefs’ Council operational lead for drones. He talks about why the push for consistency across all forces will improve efficiency and safety when it comes to using drones in law enforcement, leaving plenty of space to drive innovation from users and suppliers alike.
Early in 2023, the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) published an update on its national review of drone capability to understand how UK policing could enhance drone capability for operational use. “One of the biggest issues that came out of that review was to be able to use drones beyond visual line of sight,” says Stuart, explaining that it was the catalyst for setting up a programme focused on that issue.
There are nearly 900 police drone pilots across the UK, ten per cent of which are involved in this programme; most forces have at least one drone pilot involved in the programme’s working groups.
“The end goal is for UK policing to be at the leading edge of delivery, so we want to be seen as the go to organisation across the world for being the best at drone capability. Crucially for us, we want our forces to deliver a safe, efficient and sustainable drone capability that meets the needs for their local policing requirement to keep people safe and reduce crime.”
The progamme is made up of six projects. Centre of excellence, operations, safety and regulation, people engagement, EagleX and the uncrewed aerial feasibility study.
Competence and assurance
“We are setting the bar above and beyond what the regulator requires,” explains Stuart. The regulator in this instance is the Civil Aviation Authority and drone pilots need to demonstrate competence before they be licensed. Keith Bennett has moved from West Midlands Police where he led its drone unit, to the College of Policing to oversee the development of Approved Policing Practice for drones. Stuart says that ultimately all forces would have to adhere to the APP – a key part of achieving a consistent approach – but signing it off is likely to take time.
He is keen that this work and the wider work of the BVLOS programme has buy in at both a strategic and operational level, taking best practice to inform policy. That of course will give the policing inspectorate something to judge against when they do PEEL inspections and, as is highlighted below, provide a consistent dataset for comparison too.
The safe airspace
Safety is at the heart of drone operations. Getting a drone up into the sky is one thing, but when the operator can’t see it, situational awareness is reduced and the regulator is wants to see that police drone pilots have the right mitigation measures in place before it will consider giving them the green light to go further.
Stuart explains that BVLOS can mean simply going beyond a building line in a built-up area, a matter of metres but in a more rural space it would be much further and there are concerns about who else is operating in that airspace. There are also worries about drone failure in the sky and it falling out of control on to the ground. “It shifts from air risk to ground risk depending on where you are,” he adds.
Data does matter
Using a drone leaves a trail of data in terms of how it’s deployed, where it goes and most importantly what difference it makes when it comes to responding to crime. The data also allows the force to work out how much the drone has been used in incidents and of course how much officer time is spent as a pilot.
Stuart says that each police force has its own way of recording data from drones.
“We have 48 forces with 48 different data recording standards. We are starting to develop a standard to help comparison between forces, identify benefits and get a national view on drone performance.”
A drone is a resource that is available for deployment to an incident just like any other more traditional resource like a dog team. It is useful to know the contribution of the drone to the successful resolution of an incident and Stuart says that it is tagged in a force recording system as a ‘direct find’ or as an ‘assist.’ Where it is a direct find, it means that it was fundamental to the incident outcome.
A multi-agency approach
It’s not just police forces using drones, with fire and ambulance making investments to improve operational response. The 999 first responder drone collaboration group meets bimonthly to discuss common issues of interest. Stuart says there are lots of common areas of interest and opportunities to join up and make efficiency savings – the asset catalogue being one of these. It’s early days for the group with only two meetings so far, but it is good to see collaboration across the emergency services in what Stuart calls an enthusiastic community where everyone knows everyone. “We all want to make things better,” he adds with a smile
Improving drone procurement
Stuart is keen to emphasise that police forces are using taxpayers’ money and that force expenditure needs to show both value for money and safety outcomes. He is pleased to see the number of drone suppliers increasing in the UK.
“At the moment, forces can procure whatever drone assets they like from anywhere they like. The intention of establishing a drone asset catalogue is not to limit what forces can buy but ensures what goes on the catalogue is safe and robust, delivering what the supplier says it does.”
The NPCC is in the early stages of setting up the catalogue and it is scheduled to go live by the end of March 2025. Stuart explains that there is a three-tier process before a supplier can get on to the asset catalogue and some of that is testing including cyber security considerations.
Drones as a first responder
Two years ago the Home Office provided funding to look at the idea of drones as a first responder (DFR) and Norfolk was part of that work with confirmation late last year that the pilot would take place in the county in Spring 2024.
In essence, it is a police operated drone capability made available with support of partner agencies to provide situational awareness at the start of incidents and before other resources arrive on scene. “You can’t just buy it off the shelf,” explains Stuart. It requires a combination of the drone, software etc. to work. the DFR pilot is supported by the NPCC’s Office of the Chief Scientific Adviser, and Stuart says they have been hugely important to getting this work off the ground.
Stuart says that DFR is the next stage of drone development.
“It is an innovative concept we want to trial in the UK. It already exists in the US. We want to see if it can provide operational benefits and if so, develop a blueprint that we can roll out across the UK.”
Norwich is a perfect environment for this pilot, says Stuart. It has an airport that is located north of the city and runs east to west. As a result of that the city is all in controlled airspace which makes our life a lot easier in terms of the management of the air risk.”
Innovation through EagleX
In November, the NPCC announced the appointment of Chief Constable Jeremy Vaughan as the Chair of the newly formed Science and Innovation Committee. Mr Vaughan, who is also Vice Chair of the NPCC and national Biometrics Lead, set out his intention for policing to evolve at pace to stay ahead of emerging threats posed by criminals exploiting new technology, but reaffirmed that policing must do so responsibly and transparently.
EagleX is a new project under the BVLOS Programme, promoting collaboration between police, industry and the regulator and is one example of the work overseen by Mr Vaughan’s committee. Stuart explains, “If we want to be world leading, we need to use leading edge technology. We want to foster collaboration with innovators, suppliers and academics to pick up early innovation concepts that could support us. We are looking at ground-based radar for example.”
One of the key requirements to be part of the EagleX programme is being able to work with and integrate with other partners as a collective. “We’re finding industry is willing to do this, with UK and suppliers across the world,” adds Stuart, who is very enthusiastic about this approach.
The NPCC has published an early engagement notice to suppliers as a way to tell suppliers of the intent and wants them to indicate interest in supplying innovative new drone capability to police forces. The strong collaborative approach runs through this and other parts of the BVLOS Programme.